The philosophy of the Allies during World War Two was ‘a good Nazi is a dead Nazi’ but strangely enough amid all the anti-Semitic hate as well as hatred of the Communists by the Nazi Fascists in the years leading up to World War Two, there was an almost sympathetic portrayal of a brownshirt Hitler youth which was based on a real killing of an ‘Aryan’ teenager. First came the book and then the movie… Hitlerjunge Quex (1933).
It was pure propaganda as a book and movie and one of three propaganda movies which were produced in 1933 and flopped. Quex, as we’ll call it, was probably the best quality of them according to the critics. It wouldn’t have pleased the head of propaganda in the Fatherland Josef Goebbels (1897-1945 suicide by cyanide) that his love for the cinema wasn’t paying off. Not that it mattered since he had only begun using this instructional tool of propaganda through what was called the Reichsfilmkammer or Chamber of Film. I guess it was seen as a false start…. As the years progressed you had to be a member of the Chamber of Film to make movies in Germany…. Goebbels said of film that it was used “invisibly to penetrate the whole of life without the public having any knowledge at all of the propaganda initiative”. Talk about a killer film buff.
It was by around 1936 that primarily Jewish filmmakers had either been expelled or fled Germany because of Hitler, but when Quex was made back in 1933, the viciousness and true horrors of the Nazi regime were yet to come to fruition but if you look at newsreels of German citizens in the streets in the period leading up to World War Two, you can see the hate on their faces when it came to the Jewish citizens – even the children! … Not a good place to live at the time. But it was dangerous too for young Quex, which was short for Quicksilver, which was the nickname the Hitler youth in this book and movie was given due to his enthusiasm and the fact “he carried out orders faster than quicksilver”.
The book was written and the film was put into production after the death of real-life Hitler youth Herbert Norkus (1916-1932) who was murdered at the hands of Communists and made a martyr by the Nazi propaganda machine in Germany.
Norkus was born into a working-class family in Tiergarten in Germany and joined what has been described as the Sea Scouts section of the Hitler Youth Organisation. Tiergarten is a place where there is a memorial for all the persons with disabilities which were given involuntary euthanasia under Hitler’s regime. Furthermore, Norkus lived in an area where there was a high concentration or Communists.
It is said Norkus had an artistic streak in that he liked to draw and play the piano. According to propaganda, his father was wounded during World War One and became an embittered Communist although it is then suggested he then became a member of the Nazi Party following the death of his son.
During the waning days of the Weimar Republic as the Communist Party began to lose power, there were clashes between the Hitler Youth and the Communist Red Front youth party. It was around this period that Norkus, and a few of his mates, distributed leaflets, often by pasting them to walls, when they were chased by communists. His two friends got away but young Herbert was caught and stabbed seven times, hacked about the face and left to die. It is said that before he died, he banged on a door and a man shut it in his face while a woman behind a second door tried to get him to hospital before he quickly passed away from blood loss. Whether this youth got up to more mischief during his time as a member of the youth remains obscured by propaganda and history.
It was the following morning after Norkus’ death that Goebbels started to shape him into a martyr at a rally, while the funeral was a Nazi affair complete with Hitler Youth marching with prominent swastikas. The communist’s countered that it was an accidental killing after they were attacked. Several accomplices were tried over the murder but some of the communists managed to flee into the Soviet Union.
The Nazis took over the grave of Norkus and it was turned into a shrine and it was visited every New Year’s Day by the Nazi Youth leader Baldur von Schrach for a speech that was broadcast nationwide. As for the place he died a plaque was attached reading: “He Gave His Life for Germany’s Freedom” … Further, and the day this teenager was murdered on 24 January, was made the Remembrance Day for all killed Hitler Youth. Also, the flag from Norkus’ unit became the Hitler Youth’s ‘blood flag’ … Talk about canonisation and propaganda overdrive!
Two weeks after the Enabling Act of 1933 when Hitler became all powerful as Chancellor in March of 1933, there was a provocative Hitler Youth march to Norkus’ grave which took the route through his old neighbourhood.
The novel which was quickly written after the murder in September 1932 was Der Hitlerjunge Quex by Karl Aloys Schenzinger and it was one of a plethora of novels songs and poetry written about the young man or boy who had apparently died so senselessly. It was first published in Nazi party newspaper Volkischer Beobachter and then as a book a couple of months later in December… Good Christmas stocking filler for budding little Nazi tykes!
For the novel, the name of the hero has been changed to Heini Volker, which has a deliberate Ride of the Valkyries undertone of Aryanism.
In the book, Heini and his father live in the poor area of Berlin and suffer under the economic hardship of The Great Depression. His mother commits suicide and meanwhile it is revealed that the communist youth organisation known as Red Young Front are just a bunch of adolescents that love sex, alcohol and cigarettes. Of course, the Hitler Youth are totally disciplined as an organisation and are superior in morals. It is Heini’s father that forces him to go to a camp in the forest with the Red Young Front but Heini is disgusted by what goes on there and flees into the woods, only to encounter a campsite of Hitler Youth. He is impressed by them and the atmosphere they have created among themselves of nationalism and love of the Fuhrer and the Fatherland.
Heini joins up immediately on the “happiest day of his life” and then there is a moment when he receives his HItler Youth uniform which I guess could bring tears to the eyes… The film flopped so probably not… as Heini is told: “(this) is the clothing of the community, of comradeship, of our ideology… It makes us all equal, and gives the same to all and demands the same from all. He who wears the uniform does not have desires of his own anymore, he has only to obey.” … So, don’t spill gravy on it! Let alone blood … Ahem.
The book then progresses to obedience and equality as understood by the Nazis being seen with a very positive light. This includes self-sacrifice, the abolition of social barriers and that old Nazi chestnut, racial purity… Then the last part of the book deals with Heini’s murder and for a moment even his Resurrection from his deathbed with a Nazi tune on his lips. The ideal Aryan boy of disarming sweetness and gentleness was dead …
The film as I said was one of three which saw the well-known German film studio and production house Ufa turn towards promoting Nazism once Hitler’s regime took ownership … As I said, they flopped and the other two are largely forgotten. Previously, Ufa had been making among other things ‘mountain movies’ about the Aryan purity of living and singing among the glaciers… They also had made one of Hitler’s favourite movies The Nibelungen Saga (1924) and the masterpiece Metropolis (1925) which were both directed by Fritz Lang (1890-1976 stroke).
As for the movie version of Quex, it was directed by Hans Steinhoff (1882-1945 plane shot down) who was a stage actor that started directing with the 1921 silent movie Clothes Make the Man. He was definitely a Nazi and the right man to direct Quex if not in terms of talent then in enthusiasm. He went on to win the Mussolini Cup at the 1941 Venice Film Festival for his movie Ohm Kruger (1940). It was another propaganda movie about Boer leader Paul Kruger (1825-1904 pneumonia). Steinhoff died while fleeing Berlin on the last flight to Lisbon at the end of the war when his plane was shot down possibly by the Russians killing all on board.
Director Billy Wilder, who fled Nazi Germany, wrote a few scripts for Steinhoff, and said he was: “A man without any talent. He was a Nazi, even a hundred percent one. But there were also many Nazis who had talent. I wouldn’t say that Leni Riefenstahl didn’t have talent … But I say about Steinhoff, that he was an idiot, not because he was a Nazi, but also a bad director.” Meanwhile popular German actor Hans Albers (1891-1960 internal bleeding) described Steinhoff as “the greatest arsehole of the century” and actor Otto Fischer (1915-2004) described him as “browner than Joseph Goebbels and blacker than Heinrich Himmler”. Bon Voyage and happy flight Hans Steinhoff…
The screenwriter on the movie saw Bobby E. Luthge (1892-1964) work with the book’s author Schenzinger who wrote the scenario for the movie. Luthge had been a prolific writer during the silents and continued his career into the 1950s.
Steinhoff engaged what was seen as a strong cast for the movie with Heinrich George (1893-1946 starvation) as Quex’s communist father. It was ironic that George really had been a communist before the rise of the Nazis but then he collaborated on many of Goebbels’ propaganda films. He died in a Russian internment camp after the war for his collaboration apparently of starvation while other reports say it was after an appendix operation.
Berta Drews (1901-87) was appointed to play Quex’s mother and she was married to Heinrich George and was the mother of their two actor sons Jan (1932-) and Gotz George (1938-2016). Other stars of Quex included Claus Clauson (1899-1989) and Hermann Speelmans (1906-60). All were well known for the stage or film at the time.
And Quex himself? The original youth cast was fifteen-year-old New York born actor Hermann Braun (1917-45). He had made his debut recently in another movie. Whether it was his choice or not, Braun declined to appear in the movie due to illness. His father who was German opera singer Carl Braun (1886-1960) was an early Nazi sympathiser but Hermann took an anti-Nazi stance which was something that halted his career as his only notable roles were in Pola Negri’s (1897-1987 brain tumour and pneumonia) The Secret Lie (1938) and Emil Jannings’ (1884-1950 liver cancer) The Dreamer (1936). Hermann Braun was then drafted into the military during World War Two and died of wounds he sustained while fighting in Poland.
The role of Quex was then passed onto a sprightly fifteen-year-old youngster by the name of Jurgen Ohlsen (1917-94) who looked like the perfectly sweet Aryan boy described in the book although he didn’t have any acting experience. The propaganda machine of photographers had to work hard to give the boy a heroic aura. He was simply billed in the movie as a Hitler youth. All the other boys were also credited at Hitler youth with the exception of fourteen-year-old Hans Richter (1919-2008) who was a familiar face in Germany after appearing in Emil and the Detectives (1931). He played a thieving Nazi communist brat but the real Hans was an upstanding Hitler youth. He was drafted into the army after a busy acting career and for his Nazi leanings faced war imprisonment.
To look briefly at Quex’s Jurgen Ohlsen and he joined the Hitler youth in the wake of the movie. He immediately got himself into trouble for not being the perfect inductee as in 1935 he was apparently disciplined for repeatedly playing tennis with a Jew. Yet this was reported in the New York Times at a time when the United States and the United Kingdom were producing their own propaganda about prominent Nazis. It would be unlikely such a story would have come from Goebbels controlled media outlets in Germany. Another story which was reported by the BBC back in the 1930s was that Ohlsen was the lover of Hitler youth leader Baldur von Schirach (1907-74 coronary thrombosis). It is said to have been a rumour which caught on and by the fall on 1938 the verb “quexen” (literally “to quex”) had entered the Hitler youth slang as a euphemism for gay sex. But this is only a rumour on the internet and I cannot confirm it.
It was around this time that Ohlsen was seen as an undesirable and there were reports the Gestapo wanted to send him to a concentration camp where he would have been murdered. I guess Adolf couldn’t bring himself to do such a thing to his little Quex and so Ohlsen was very fortunate to survive to be 77 when he died in Dusseldorf.
I saw that this movie was on Internet Archive and after years of knowing of the legend I sat down and viewed it. If it weren’t Nazis they were portraying, you could watch it without an ounce of guilt. When the Nazi song began blasting from the tv speakers I felt inclined to turn it down. Ohlsen gives an enthusiastic performance and he has made the role kind of iconic in terms of a child who is innocent enough to believe this Nazi youth movement is right because it promotes a clean mind and a healthy body. Even today, we still kind of believe that the communists are the bad guys thanks to pontificating right wing politicians in our current democracies. The portrayals are far from sympathetic, especially Quex’s father who is nothing but a drunken brute. The Nazis on the other hand are all too good to be true. But then there is the caricature which looms in terms of the communist youth. It’s just a case of it being hard to believe that every communist is bad just as we now know that every Nazi is not as good as Quex.
The movie starts with the Nazi song which contains the verse: “Our flag is showing us the way” and it is repeated several times as we learn about the poverty in Berlin. Heini and his parents share a tiny apartment and Heini’s father hopes his son will join the communist party which offers hope of a life off the dole.
“My boy a Nazi? I’d sooner beat him to death,” says Heini’s father to a communist friend as we get an idea of the divide between the two parties.
The depiction of the communists as louts certainly contrasts to the marching Hitler Youth who, when Heini sees them in the woods one night, finds that even their bonfire is neat and well organised!
“But mother, they’re not all bad,” Heini tells his mother about the Nazis after his encounter. We know the communists are bad because ginger headed boys with buck teeth are a part of their rough and tumble gang which takes women to camp with them and it is hinted that these young women pass on sexual favours to the young communists. She smokes and drinks beer with them as well which are provided by this bunch of rapscallions.
Poor Heini has a mother who decides to end it all at some stage and take the boy with her by turning on the gas in the apartment which only has Heini end up in hospital. It is then that the Hitler Youth take pity on him and Heini joins them and is presented with a uniform in his hospital bed.
Meanwhile he earns the ire of the local communist gangsters who are at the local carnival’s shooting gallery as they aim their guns and say the target is “Heini Volker” as they shoot.
There is a long scene with the communist recruiter named Stoppel who tries to convince Heini to join the communists but he refuses and this spells the end for Heini as he has totally left behind the communists for the Nazis… and his father would prefer him dead.
The performance by Ohlsen is not particularly natural and a little stiff as you can tell he is not totally comfortable in front of the camera. It is no wonder he didn’t flourish as a performer. But he gives the idea that despite this almost self-conscious air that he has one purpose and that he is driven to find something to belong to even if it is not another person.
“Why can’t he kiss the girls back?,” asks one woman.
“I got other hobbies,” says Heini/Quex.
Quex is an individual and a good boy who works hard for his nickname. It’s a shame that certain people don’t like him or his politics. Like some young adolescents he is easily led to some degree… and yet he remains sole-minded. Whether the real Quex, one Herbert Norkus, was such an appealing innocent, or was of dubious character, no one will ever really know.
When Heini dies on the street after being stabbed, he says almost in a whisper caused by blood loss, as he is held by his fellow Hitler youths: “Our flag is showing us the ways…”
If a good Nazi is a dead Nazi, then this Nazi is dead. But is that good? For the right or wrong reasons, it was a propaganda bonanza.